Many startups experience quick success and rapid growth because they've introduced an innovation that 1. responds to consumer needs, and 2. changes the way that people think/work/interact. As time passes, however, growth slows and creativity ebbs as employees knuckle down to handle the more mundane, day-to-day business details involved in maintaining the market of their core asset. Innovation takes a back seat to the lethargy of "business as usual."
Business Strategy Stifles Creative Strategy
That same lethargy often exists in mature companies, too, which have years (sometimes decades) of established business practices in place that provide the foundation of their business model. Both inertia and fear can cause leaders to eschew novel ideas or innovations; a small ripple in the practices in one corporate sector might make waves throughout the enterprise, the consequences of which are both unknown and potentially disastrous. Consequently, company leadership finds it's easier (and safer) to maintain the status quo than it is to risk possible failure by looking for different ways to achieve the same corporate goals.
Project Structure can Stifle Creativity, too
The lethargy problem can be particularly vexing in project work. Because each project usually follows a defined schedule with a set timeline, project-related business practices also follow tried-and-true methods that are known to accomplish expected goals. The challenge arises when those tried-and-true practices fail to evolve with industry expectations or best practices and may even be obsolete for the project at hand. Errors occur and costs accrue if or when staff does not have the opportunity to adapt their activities using current resources as the project demands. In many cases, poor project leadership is the reason workers (and projects) remain entrenched in behaviors that stifle the creativity needed to address the new demands that arise each day.
How Project Leaders Stifle Innovation
As noted above, many project leaders fear to leave the "project practice comfort zone" because any changes might negatively impact any or every aspect of the project itself. Contemplating a change means also considering its impact across every element of the project for the short-, mid-, and long-term. The possible permutations that can arise within each component makes making even the simplest change in any one of them a daunting prospect. Sticking with the tried-and-true will, if nothing else, get the project completed.
There are other project-leader behaviors that can stifle innovation, too:
Limiting Financial Investment for Innovation
This barrier to innovation flows from the narrow perspective that it "cuts funds from existing budgets, so, therefore, this project can't afford it." However, the opportunity to develop innovative methods or products often arises within a project, which then provides the opportunity to experiment with the change in real time and under real project mandates. The investment in innovation development, then, should not be pulled from the project budget, but instead from corporate funds designed to build its future business.
Seeing Only the Short Term
Every project is replete with thousands of details that need management or oversight every day. It's not surprising, then, that leadership gets bogged down addressing each of those concerns and loses track of where the project is ultimately heading. And the "just get it done" mindset frequently falls back on what it knows WILL work without paying too much attention what MIGHT work. Leaders who appreciate the future possibilities of novel practices or thought processes also keep doors open to future developments.
Related: Five Ways Project Leaders Fail (And What You Can Do About It)
Looking to avoid unnecessary failure? Pay attention to these 5 signs that a "leader" is not actually leading the way.
How Project Leaders Optimize Innovation
At its heart, project management is about implementing a set series of objectives to achieve the customer's goal. The project manager's goal is to make sure that the project delivers the customer's vision, and creativity is often not looked upon favorably because it might redirect attention away from the customer's preference.
In reality, however, the project manager's job is to ensure that each element of the work accomplishes its tasks on time, on budget, and within customer guidelines. The methods used in those processes are under the control of the project manager, so long as each element of the project ultimately achieves the customer's goals, the steps taken to get there can be either tried-and-true or new and innovative without jeopardizing the eventual success of the endeavor. Ergo, those managers who encourage collaboration and creativity across their team often discover new practices and processes that eventually enhance the net result of the project without ever deviating from the customer's vision.
As today's projects become more complex with increasing layers of technology, out-sourced services, and changing customer demands, it also becomes imperative that project management teams bring their creative skills and abilities to the work as well as their technical and expert capacities. Adapting business strategies to embrace creative solutions to old problems can enhance customer satisfaction while improving performance and reducing costs and waste.
Today’s project management and accounting software and programming give project managers cutting edge tools to adapt existing business strategies to embrace innovative solutions to new challenges. Using them allows leadership to bring that “startup mentality” to their traditional, old-style project management practices.